EXCLUSIVE: The EU is failing to create a circular economy that boosts resource efficiency and protects the environment, an influential report has found, piling pressure on the European Commission to deliver a strong replacement for the package of waste, incineration, landfill and recycling laws it controversially axed as part of its drive for “better regulation”.
The European Environment State and Outlook 2015 report will inform the next five years of EU policymaking and is written by the European Environment Agency (EEA).
The Circular Economy package of six laws on waste, packaging, landfill, end-of-life vehicles, batteries and accumulators, and electronic equipment waste. was quietly ditched last week after a meeting of the College of Commissioners.
Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans, in charge of better regulation, has promised a “more ambitious” version of the bill will be proposed before the end of this year.
Today (3 March), campaigners and Hans Bruyninckx, the EEA’s executive director, said the report put the onus on the Commission to deliver an improved bill.
Bruyninckx told EURACTIV, “We have done substantial work that illustrates the vital importance of the circular economy and resource efficiency for well-being and competitiveness, and that focusing on these elements contributes to European competitiveness, job creation and economic performance.”
“So we are looking forward to seeing the strengthened packages,” he added.
Jeremy Wates, the European Environmental Bureau’s secretary general, said: “This scandal can only be mitigated if the Commission now comes forward with a proposal that is genuinely ambitious”.
That would mean keeping waste targets from the original proposal and adding measures to make products more repairable and longer lasting, he added.
The dropped Circular Economy package included legally binding targets of 70% recycling for municipal waste by 2030, 80% recycling for packaging, such as glass, paper, metal and plastic by 2030, and a ban on landfilling of all recyclable and biodegradable waste by 2025.
Not ambitious enough
The EU has a goal of “living well within the limits of the planet” by 2050 in its 7th Environment Action Programme. But current policy was not ambitious enough to meet that, or other long-term environmental goals, the EEA said in their five-yearly report.
Neither the environmental policies currently in place, nor economic and technology-driven efficiency gains, will be sufficient, the EEA said.
Biodiversity loss and climate change remained major threats. Efficiency improvements were often negated by rising consumption, the research found. Food, energy, housing, transport, finance, health and education systems had to be transformed.
Bruyninckx said EU policies had successfully tackled environmental problems over the years, but massive changes to the systems of production and consumption were needed.
“We will have to fundamentally rethink how we live on this planet with nine to ten billion people, that all have an equal right to a decent life,” he told EURACTIV. “It is quite clear that we cannot continue in our linear model of getting resources out of the ground and in the end, throwing them away”.
The report will be presented by the EEA boss and European Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Karmenu Vella, in Brussels today (3 March).
Circular economy findings
The notion of the “circular economy” where nothing is wasted is central to EU efforts to boost resource efficiency, the report said.
Waste management had improved, but “Europe remains far from a circular economy”, it added.
The EU has introduced waste policies and targets since the 1990s. They included measures for specific types of waste, moving towards the broader Waste Framework Directive.
The directive, a 2008 precursor to the Circular Economy package, works on the basis of a waste hierarchy. The hierarchy prioritises prevention, followed by preparation for reuse, recycling, recovery and finally disposal as the least desirable option.
According to the report, European trends in waste management were largely positive. Per capita waste generation (excluding mineral waste) across the EU dropped by 7% to 1,817 kg per person, between 2004-2012. Municipal waste declined by 4%, to 481 kg per capita, over the same period.
Between 2004 and 2012, the EU-28, Iceland and Norway reduced wasted in landfills from 31% of total waste generated to 22% (excluding mineral, combustion, animal and vegetable wastes).
This was partly due to increased recycling rates of municipal waste, from 28% in 2004 to 36% in 2012. Reduced methane emissions from landfill and avoided emissions through recycling also contributed to a drop in greenhouse gas emissions.
But, the report said, waste generation remained substantial and policy target performance was mixed. Many EU members would have to make “an extraordinary effort” to hit the EU target of 50% recycling of municipal waste streams by 2020.
“Waste management will need to change radically in order to phase out completely the landfilling of recyclable or recoverable waste,” the report said.
Drawn up under the last Barroso Commission, the package was the highest profile pending bill to be dropped, as part of the Juncker administration’s drive for “better regulation”.
It was intended to increase recycling levels and tighten rules on incineration and landfill. Barroso’s administration claimed it would create €600 billion net savings, two million jobs and deliver 1% GDP growth.
EU environment ministers, MEPs and campaigners argued strongly against the decision. Dropping it would cause unnecessary delays and send the wrong message, they said.
The withdrawal is even more controversial as a business organisation had lobbied for the package to be killed off.
— Friends of the Earth (@foeeurope) February 27, 2015
Timmermans has asked Green MEPs to trust him over the decision. He said the new bill would include laws to prevent waste being created in the first place. This can be achieved by “completing the circle”. This would involve legislating to encourage the use of materials that create less waste and are easy to recycle, he said.